From Russia with art (and chess)

Andrey Filatov, a Cultural Ambassador

The West has an ambivalent relationship with post-Soviet Russia and a bit of an attitude when it comes to dealing with wealthy Russians who straddle the Central European divide.

Politics aside, we never quite seem to know how to take them – at face value, with a pinch of salt, or with a large dollop of envy. These “pesky East-Europeans” have not just pulled themselves up by the bootstraps and written a new success story, they are changing the cultural landscape of the West. They are buying and restoring historical landmarks, they endow museums, they set up foundations and they prop up many a fading institution.

We have even dusted off the esoteric word “oligarch” for them and given it a new connotation. Mass and popular media is full of stories about their acquisitions, their lifestyles and their hijinks. Politically, Russia sits on the other side of a newly opened schism, not least on account of the Ukraine.

Andrey Filatov is a born and bred Ukrainian himself, as is his wife, whom he married recently. He graduated from the Belarus Academy of Physical Education and Sports with a diploma in PS and Chess Studies. He was a candidate to become Chess Master of Sports of the USSR. Today, he is the President of the Russian Chess Federation and Vice President of the International Chess Federation (FIDE). Chess is, in fact, a passion of his and central to his cultural mission.

He is not an apologist for the Communist Era – in fact, he has embraced the artistic heritage of those post-revolution decades and made a virtue of collecting works dating between 1917 and 1991. There is a defiance about him that would no doubt resonate with all Russians who are tired of being stereotyped, placed in boxes and expected to denounce their country’s political or historical record.

To begin with, he points out that the average Westerner has scant knowledge of Russian culture beyond the easy handle references to the Bolshoi theatre.

“They only know the clichéd symbols of Russia: Kalashnikovs and caviar. Few have an awareness of the great artists, sculptors, composers and writers who kept on creating throughout the era of the Soviet Union.”

“I grew up during that time and yes, there is now a certain cultural nostalgia for it. The USSR was a huge empire that survived for 70 years – through disasters, wars and repressions and yet at the same time we maintained our intellectual capacity and sent people into space, created nuclear power stations and advanced our technologies. These accomplishments should not be forgotten.”

They are, of course, immortalised in a vast legacy of XX century Russian art– mainly Socialist Realism – that Filatov has identified as a niche and has chosen to collect. The art, he says, is a celebration of an overlooked period.

“There is no other nation that has suffered as much as the Russian people in the 20th century”, he points out. “We had a revolution, a huge amount of wars, famines, dictatorships, repressions… and there are people who are still alive and who remember all of it. They know of course that we have to prevent it from happening ever again.”

He chose the music of Shostakovich to be played at the Art Russe exhibition `The Legacy of World War II in Russian Art’ at Saatchi Gallery because “it was written during the siege of Leningradand symbolises the huge suffering of that time”.

The coverage of the Ukraine events is something else he feels strongly about – like most Russians, he resents what he sees as a one-sided and misguided take on the situation. Like most major entrepreneurs I meet, he sees the solution in economic terms: the Ukraine, he says, needs investment, not political interventionism. Filatov is a man with a mission – quite simply, he would like to stem this tidal wave of negativity by bringing a little of “the real Russia” to the UK through exhibitions, chess tournaments and collaborative events (he is the cofounder of an international project “Chess in Museums” in tandem with the Timchenko Fund).

He believes a strong relationship exists between art and chess and the audiences they appeal to. At the FIDE women’s chess world championship in Sochi, Russia this year, an online video relay showing The Legacy of WWII in Russian Art meant that more than a million viewers from 201 countries viewed the exhibition. Staging online exhibitions during internet broadcasting of chess tournaments was first used in 2012, during the world chess championship match that was held at the State Tretyakov Gallery, which he also supported.

Filatov believes that like art, chess has an important role to play in society. He tells me a little story of a conversation he had with the Armenian President. When Filatov asked why chess is taught there for 2 hours a week as part of the school curriculum, he got the following answer: “We are not a rich country and have no budget for fighting drug abuse. As chess has been statistically proven to deter drug use, we decided to introduce it as an integral part of school education.”

Expect a lot of chess tournaments taking place where and when his vast collection eventually finds a home. It could possibly happen in London, although Londoners are by no means the only beneficiaries of his cultural initiatives.

Under the aegis of Art Russe, Filatov supported an exhibition of Nikolai Fechin’s works, the first since 1976, at the Seattle Frye Art museum. Art Russe also sponsored an exhibition of Mikhail Nesterov’s works at the State Tretyakov Gallery to mark the 150th anniversary of the artist. In December 2013 Art Russe supported a retrospective exhibition of paintings by the 1960s artist Viktor Popkov at the Russian Academy of Arts in Moscow and the works then travelled to Ca’ Foscari in Venice and Somerset House in London in 2014.

So what’s he like – this Russian who is stepping, somewhat gingerly, into the international art arena, saying little in English, but understanding plenty enough? Defying the stereotype again, he is understated and measured. Together with his wife, they come across as “team Russia” – she translating softly when needed, he sharing the occasional private joke with her. Elena Filatova is smart (she has a degree in finance), fresh-faced pretty and unadorned (she needs neither make-up nor statement baubles to validate her husband’s success), and every bit as measured as her husband.

Only when I comment on Filatov’s wit (his humorous repartees come fast and off the cuff when he speaks in Russian) and say I like it, does she break into a smile and says, “I like him too”.

They are a tight unit, obviously, and do have a lot in common – not least the fact that they have known each other since their youth. What next for Art Russe, I wonder aloud? Well, by the time this article is published, the genie will be out of the bottle: Filatov has bought an important wine chateau in Bordeaux, a stone’s throw away from Petrus, and will be re-launching it as…you guessed it, Chateau Art Russe.

The art collection

Filatov’s collection includes a vast number (museum size, by his own reckoning) of Socialist Realism works by some of the 20th century’s foremost artists, including Igor Grabar, Pyotr Konchalovsky, Konstantin Korovin, Gely Korzhev, Arkady Plastov, and Yuri Kugach.

Perceptions of Soviet art are beginning to change in the West, which means a shift in attitude: from looking at it purely as work based on censorship and coercion to work of artistic and historical merit, as well as a critical re-examination of individual artists, genres and periods.

In this sense, the collection is a significant one and its importance will stretch beyond the stated goals of its founder.